Lesson Plan: The Greatest Gift By Philip Van Doren Stern

Level: Intermediate -Advanced

Language Skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening. Vocabulary activities are included.

Time: approximately 2 hours.

Materials:  Copy of story The Greatest Gift, biography of Philip Van Doren Stern, examples of Components for Literary Analysis, and access to the video clips (see below).

Objectives:  Students will  read and discuss the short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. Students will achieve a better understanding of the story by learning literary devices and terms  (e.g., imagery, symbolism, setting,) used for analyzing stories.  They will also learn how to  analyze the relationship between characters, and events in the story by using these literary devices.

I. Pre-Reading Exercises

 Stimulating Background Knowledge: Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Ask students to read the title of the short story. Then, have them  examine the photos in the story. Based on these sources, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article.

 Pre-reading Discussion Questions

Directions: Have students discuss the following questions prior to reading the story.

The Greatest Gift  is a story about a man who is very unhappy with his life and wishes that he was never born. His wish is granted and the story follows how he handles being unborn.

Think about the following questions.  Discuss your ideas with your  group members.

1. Describe a time when you were very unhappy with the way your life was going. First, how did you feel? Second, what did you do to help the situation?

2. In your opinion what makes life valuable?

3. In general, when people are frustrated and unhappy with their lives, what’s the best advice you would give them?

II. While Reading Tasks

Vocabulary:  Word Inference

Directions: Place students in groups and have them infer the meanings of the words in bold font taken from the story. They can use this Vocabulary Chart as a guide.

  1. The current eddied and swirled like liquid glass.
  2. George turned resentfully to a little man he had never seen before.
  3. “Wouldn’t do what?” George asked sullenly.
  4. He was a most unremarkable little person.
  5. Nothing else about him was noteworthy.
  6. The little man made a queer chuckling sound.
  7. You’d better take this with you,” he said, holding out his satchel.
  8. After that, of course, it’s a cinch.
  9. George felt a sudden burst of affection.
  10. His father waved toward the door. “Go on in,” he said cordially.
  11. His voice faltered.
  12. His mother smiled at his awkwardness.
  13. The choir was making last-minute preparations for Christmas vespers.


Prediction and Character Organizer Charts

Directions: Students may use these Prediction and Character  profile charts by Pace High School as  a while-reading tool to aid in their comprehension of the events and of the characters in the story.


Directions:  Choose 1 or 2 of  the characters in the story and fill in the following chart.

Character analysis chart

Try to predict what will happen next in the story using this prediction chart.

Prediction Outcomes Chart


Questions for Comprehension

  1.  What holiday is it?
  2.  What was the one thing George felt was outstanding about the stranger?  
  3. Describe the stranger.
  4. What kind of profession did George think the stranger had?
  5.  The stranger begins to tell George why his life can’t be that bad.”  What are some of the reasons he gives George to prove his life isn’t that bad? 
  6.  Why is George “sick of everything”? 
  7. What wish does George make? “I said I wish I’d never been born,” George repeated firmly. “And I mean it too.”
  8.  Describe the stranger’s reaction to George’s wish.
  9. What is George’s reaction after the stranger grants him his wish? 
  10. Why did the stranger give George the satchel? 
  11.  What was inside the satchel? 
  12. What happened when George tried to return the satchel to the stranger? 
  13.  What quarrel did George have with Hank Biddle? 
  14. When George inspected the damaged tree in Hank’s yard, what was his reaction?
  15.  Why did the ‘nonexistent scar’ on the tree bother George? 
  16.  Describe what George saw when he reached the bank where he worked.  
  17. Who was Jim Silva? 
  18. Why didn’t Jim Silva recognize George?  
  19.  Who was Marty Jenkins and what did he do involving the bank? 
  20.  Who was Art Jenkins?  What problem did Art have?
  21.  Who did Art Jenkins marry? 
  22.  Why did this information disturb George Platt?
  23.  Why didn’t George go find Mary right away?
  24. How did George’s parents behave when he visited them?
  25. What did George find out about Mary from his parents?
  26. Who was Harry?  
  27.  Why did George’s mother get upset when Harry’s name was mentioned?
  28. How did George remember the incident with Harry?
  29.  What changes occurred because George Platt did not exist?
  30.  Why did the stranger let George live again?
  31.  When George reached Hank Biddle’s house, what did he do first? !
  32. At then end of the story what did George find in his house that made his voice freeze? 

Questions for Literary Analysis

  1. Themes  are  messages or ideas in a story. Usually themes are some beliefs about life or life experiences the author is trying to express to the reader. (Examples: honesty, death and dying, love, importance of family) What are some of the themes in the story?
  2. Symbolism is the practice using an object, place,  person or words to represent an abstract idea in a story. When an author wants to suggest a certain mood or emotion they use symbolism to hint at it, as oppossed to just saying it.  (Examples: flowers can represent romance, fog might represent a bad omen.) What are some of the symbols in the story?
  3. Imagery is descriptive language authors use to  create a picture in the reader’s mind. Imagery usually involves the senses: sight, taste, sound, touch and  smell. (Examples: ‘the tangy taste of lemon’ ‘the loud ringing of the bells’, ‘the red and gold sunset’) Identify some examples of how the author used imagery in this story.

Questions For Reflection

  1. The stranger says to George, “Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,” the stranger said easily.   Who is the “we”  the stranger is referring to? 
  2. The stranger tells George Pratt,  You got everything you asked for. You’re the freest man on earth now.”  Give some examples of  how George is “free” .
  3. In your opinion, What is the Greatest Gift?
  4. At the end of the story, George thinks perhaps it was all a dream. What do you think happened to George?  Why?
  5. What have you  learned from this story?

Writing Assignment 

Directions: Have students choose a topic from below and write an essay to share with the class.

  1. Choose one of the themes and write an essay describing your thoughts about the theme.
  2. Write a description for each character  that appears in the story.
  3. See if you can write a different ending for the story. Share your ending with the class.


Listening Activity  

Directions:  Compare the opening scenes from the  film clips  It’s A Wonderful Life to opening scenes from the short story The Greatest Gift, then answer the questions.

“It’s a Wonderful Life is a 1946 American Christmas fantasy drama film produced and directed by Frank Capra, based on the short story and booklet The Greatest Gift, which Philip Van Doren Stern published in 1943…”  Wikipedia 

1st clip: It’s A Wonderful Life | Suicide Attempt | Frank Capra


2nd clip:It’s a Wonderful Life Movie CLIP – Angel Second Class (1946)


Excerpt from the beginning of the short story The Greatest Gift By Philip Van Doren Stern

“The little town straggling up the hill was bright with colored Christmas lights. But George Pratt did not see them. He was leaning over the railing of the iron bridge, staring down moodily at the black water. The current eddied and swirled like liquid glass, and occasionally a bit of ice, detached from the shore, would go gliding downstream to be swallowed up in the shadows under the bridge.

The water looked paralyzingly cold. George wondered how long a man could stay alive in it. The glassy blackness had a strange, hypnotic effect on him. He leaned still farther over the railing. . .“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a quiet voice beside him said.

George turned resentfully to a little man he had never seen before. He was stout, well past middle age, and his round cheeks were pink in the winter air as though they had just been shaved.

“Wouldn’t do what?” George asked sullenly.
“What you were thinking of doing.”
“How do you know what I was thinking?”
“Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,” the stranger said easily.”

3rd clip:  It’s a Wonderful Life  Movie CLIP – Careful What You Wish For (1946)

Excerpt From the Short Story

“Well, if you know so much about me,” George said, “give me just one good reason why I should be alive.”

The little man made a queer chuckling sound. “Come, come, it can’t be that bad. You’ve got your job at the bank. And Mary and the kids. You’re healthy, young, and—”

I never did anything really useful or interesting, and it looks as if I never will. I might just as well be dead. I might better be dead. Sometimes I wish I were. In fact, I wish I’d never been born!”

The little man stood looking at him in the growing darkness. “What was that you said?” he asked softly.

“I said I wish I’d never been born,” George repeated firmly. “And I mean it too.”

The stranger’s pink cheeks glowed with excitement. “Why that’s wonderful! You’ve solved everything. I was afraid you were going to give me some trouble. But now you’ve got the solution yourself. You wish you’d never been born. All right! OK! You haven’t!” “What do you mean?” George growled.

“You haven’t been born. Just that. You haven’t been born. No one here knows you. You have no responsibilities—no job—no wife—no children. Why, you haven’t even a mother. You couldn’t have, of course. All your troubles are over. Your wish, I am happy to say, has been granted—officially.”

Discussion Questions

1. In the beginning of It’s A Wonderful Life  what are the differences between the opening scenes in the film (directed by Frank Capra) and the opening scenes in the short story The Greatest Gift written by Philip Van Doren Stern?

2. Which version do you prefer?  Explain Why?